JT LeRoy was a teenage hustler who emerged from a childhood of abuse, drug addiction and homelessness to write about his harrowing experiences and become a literary sensation as taken up by Madonna, Bono, Winona Ryder, Carrie Fisher, Courtney Love, Lou Reed and Gus Van Sant, among many others. His back story was shocking — raped at five; pimped out by his prostitute mother at truck stops; HIV-positive; heroin-addicted …sit on that, Angela’s Ashes! — but the biggest shock, when it arrived? He did not exist. JT, it turned out, had been confected by Laura Albert, a 35-year-old woman from Brooklyn. This is Laura’s version of events, and whether you’ve heard of JT or not — I hadn’t, I confess — it’s a gripping account of psychological disturbance, fake authorship, and how impossible it is to get Courtney Love off the phone: ‘There’s a small line of coke here and I don’t want to put you on hold,’ she says, mid-conversation. Next, a mighty snorting sound. Nice.
This documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig employs old footage, new footage, animation, Laura’s phone conversations, which she seems to have always recorded, but mostly it’s Laura talking to camera, saying her piece, telling her story. And to describe her story as ‘multilayered’ doesn’t do it justice. This isn’t the peeling back of an onion; it’s the peeling back of a whole sack of onions. You peel one onion and then another rolls towards you. There is no shortage of onions.
As she tells it, rivetingly — whatever else, you can’t deny her articulacy — she was living in San Francisco with her soon-to-be-husband, Geoff, and earning money via phone sex when, feeling suicidal, she called a crisis hotline. And the moment someone answered she became JT, a 13-year-old boy from the south who liked to dress as a girl and had been through hell. There he was, fully formed, she says. He was not premeditated, she insists. He was not ‘a hoax’. He was part of her psyche. The therapist on call that day, Dr Terrence Owens, who continued to counsel JT by phone for years, told JT to write down his experiences, as it would be therapeutic. So JT wrote, and faxed to Owens who, in turn, showed a publisher. The first book, Sarah, which, to be fair, was listed as ‘fiction’ even though everyone took it to be a memoir, was published in 2000 and was hailed as ‘a dazzling debut’, by which time JT had taken to appearing in public. That is, Laura’s sister-in-law Savannah had taken to appearing as JT in public. Her breasts were bound and she wore a blond wig and big glasses (she looked like a squashed, effeminate Bernie Ecclestone) and was extremely shy — she’d give readings from under a table — but everyone bought it. A second book followed, which was adapted into a film, and also a third book. They were all acclaimed.
Meanwhile, Laura and Geoff presented themselves as ‘Speedie’ and ‘Astor’, JT’s assistants, or sometimes Laura was ‘Emily’, JT’s social worker, and also a singer. (Many, many onions, like I said.) The celebrities truck up. Winona gushes about having known JT ‘for many, many years’. (Ha!) Madonna sends gifts. Courtney snorts. Bono gives JT ‘the Bono Talk’, which, apparently, is the sign you’ve truly been ‘ushered through the celebrity portal’ and appears to consist of: ‘Be who you are.’ (Ha!) Laura relates her own sad story, which involves being molested by her mother’s boyfriends, and fat-shamed at school, and abandoned at mental institutions but, having already proved herself an unreliable narrator, and having already milked the whole abuse scenario, it’s quite hard to feel sympathy for her.
That said, she doesn’t ask for sympathy; not now, and she didn’t when it all came crashing down with her exposure in 2006. She is not contrite. JT was not a fib. He was an ‘avatar’ and many authors have written under pseudonyms down the ages. This is true enough. No one ripped up Middlemarch and pissed all over Mary Ann Evans when it transpired that ‘George Eliot’ didn’t exist. But, when it comes to personal experience, readers have a right to know what they are reading and who they are being asked to believe in. That’s my view, but it isn’t a view that is ever put to her.
In allowing few other voices aside from Laura’s, many questions do go unasked. What’s happened to her family? I wanted to know. Her sister? Her son? What did Geoff think of JT? Her publishers? Why did she always record her phone conversations? How come Dr Owens was prepared to treat JT as a patient without ever seeing him? Also, Laura’s obviously undergone extensive plastic surgery and now looks like a wonky Cher tribute act. What’s that all about? We’ll never know.
But it’s engrossing otherwise, and also educative. And if Courtney calls, please say I am out…